Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Student journalists in rural Kansas discover that principal lied about credentials, so she resigns

An investigative report by journalists at a high school in rural southeastern Kansas revealed that the school's new principal lied on her application, leading to her resignation, Samantha Schmidt reports for The Washington Post. When six journalists for The Booster Redux, the paper at Pittsburg High School, began investigating principal Amy Robertson, they found that the website for Corllins University, the private school where she said she got her master’s and doctorate degrees, didn’t work. They also found no evidence that it was an accredited university, and later learned it was a diploma mill.

Redux reporters Gina Mathew, Kali Poenitske,
Maddie Baden, Trina Paul, Connor Balthazor
and Patrick Sullivan (Photo by Emily Smith)
The students started "a weeks-long investigation that would result in an article published Friday questioning the legitimacy of the principal’s degrees and of her work as an education consultant," Schmidt writes. "On Tuesday night, Robertson resigned." Newspaper adviser Emily Smith told the Post, “Everybody kept telling them, ‘Stop poking your nose where it doesn’t belong.'" Smith, who said the students had the full support of the superintendent, "were at a loss that something that was so easy for them to see was waiting to be noticed by adults.”

The team of five juniors and a senior "revealed that Corllins had been portrayed in a number of articles as a diploma mill, a place where people can buy a degree, diploma or certificates," Schmidt writes. "Corllins is not accredited by the U.S. Department of Education, the students reported. The Better Business Bureau’s website says Corllins’s physical address is unknown and the school isn’t a BBB-accredited institution."

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The students reported that during a conference, "Robertson 'presented incomplete answers, conflicting dates and inconsistencies in her responses,'" Schmidt writes. Robertson claimed she attended Corllins before it lost accreditation, but "she declined to comment directly on students’ questions about her credentials, 'because their concerns are not based on facts,' she said. In an emergency faculty meeting Tuesday, the superintendent said Robertson was unable to produce a transcript confirming her undergraduate degree from the University of Tulsa, Smith said."

"During the course of their reporting, the students spent weeks reaching out to educational institutions and accreditation agencies to corroborate Robertson’s background, some even working through spring break," Schmidt writes. "Smith, had to recuse herself from the story because she was on the committee that hired Robertson. So the students sought the help of Eric Thomas, executive director of the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, and other local and national journalists and experts. Under Kansas law, high school journalists are protected from administrative censorship."

Supt. Destry Brown told the Pittsburg Morning Sun, “I appreciate that our kids ask questions and don’t just accept something because somebody told them. And that would have been the easy thing to do. So I will always support our kids. The unfortunate thing is that internal in our office we were already working on a lot of that and eventually the chickens would have come to roost. They made it very public, which probably speeded that process. Things may have happened differently but maybe had the same result in the end. It would have been later, rather than earlier. I feel like they did a great job with the research they did. They shared that with me. We took some of that and followed up.”

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